Abu Dhabi: Spanish ace Rafael Nadal is ready to take on the best players in the world at the Australian Open in January but is not 100 per cent clear of his injuries.
The Spaniard won the first set but went down to South African Kevin Anderson in the semi-final of the Mubadala Word Tennis Championships 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 on Friday.
Nadal, who was forced to retire with a right knee injury from his US Open semi-final in early September, was playing his first competitive match since the ankle surgery at the start of November.
While he seemed happy to get some time on court, he later announced his withdrawal from the third-place play-off match, scheduled to take place on Saturday.
There were still glimmers of the Nadal of old on show on Friday night.
He moved well, served hard and those forehand and backhand returns had the power and precision that can land him the 18th Grand Slam when the Australian Open gets under way on January 14.
“I’m happy to be back on court here,” said Nadal soon after the clash that lasted close to two hours. I have great memories out here and of years playing great matches.
"Honestly this is a perfect way to start the season. Feels great to back on court and I need to take step by step after the surgery and that takes a bit of time."
"I have to take care of my body and my recovery but it’s a positive start. I thank the crowd here for all their support and to the fans all around the world.”
Nadal later apologised for skipping the third-place match.
“It was a good match. My goal had been done in terms of coming back. I’m satisfied with the way I’m playing. I can’t thank the tournament and organisation enough for understanding my injury. but I hope to have an exciting year. I hope to be healthy.”
The first set went on serve until the sixth game before Anderson’s serve came under pressure in the seventh. After taking a 15-40 lead, Nadal broke Anderson with a brilliant overhead volley to go 4-3 up in the set.
World No. 6 Anderson immediately broke back in the next game after Nadal got a bit distracted with a fan calling out in between the rally.
Nadal was seen asking the fan to calm down but lost his own rhythm and came up with two unforced errors to hand the game to Anderson.
However, he showed lot of spine to break back in the next game at 40-15 to take a 5-4 lead and later held his own serve to take the first set at 6-4.
In the second set, Anderson was far more purposeful in his approach. He managed a break point in the sixth game after Nadal sent his return wide. He then again put pressure on the Spaniard serve with a brilliant crosscourt return which Nadal ended up sending long and was broken. Anderson then held his serve and pocketed the second set at 6-3.
In the third set, Nadal had his opportunity to race ahead when he had two break points each in the sixth and eighth games.
Anderson saved them to be on level terms and then broke Nadal in the ninth to go 5-4 up and then clinched the 10th game with ease at love to seal a place in the final.
Anderson speaking about the win said: “It was tough but it was great to see Rafa back on the court. It was a tough match against him as he is true champion of the sport. It was nice to get out here and get a win and put myself in the finals tomorrow.”